'My Pain and My Tears Are Gone'

After Childhood Tragedy, Dockett Chooses to Laugh

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

TAMPA, Jan. 28 -- He is the jokester of the Arizona Cardinals locker room, with his mouth often at work and usually grinning. The engaging personality was on full display here Wednesday soon after defensive tackle Darnell Dockett walked, fashionably late, into the media tent set up at the team's hotel during Super Bowl week.

He sat, and the words came tumbling out for the next half-hour or so, eliciting more than a few laughs from the tiny crowd of media members. If he's not the NFL's best quote-producer, he's on the short list.

But as he told the story of his life, a story he had been reluctant to share until a college coach told him it could inspire others, Dockett made it clear he chooses to laugh all the time, in large part because he decided he'd cried enough.

"If you ask any one of my teammates, when I'm in the locker room, I'm on joke time all the time," Dockett said. "I'm gonna have me a blast. My pain and my tears are gone. I've done shed enough of them. When you see me, you always see me on joke time. Sometimes people are like, 'You play too much.' I'll be like: 'You'd better enjoy life. Smile and enjoy this while you can.' "

Dockett's story is tragic at points, from growing up poor near Atlanta to stealing cars with his friends to coming home one day to find his mother had been fatally shot. But it also is a story of salvation, beginning when he moved to Maryland and, with a father he barely knew dying of cancer, was taken in by his uncle who lived in Burtonsville.

His uncle steered him -- forced him, really -- into football, and the sport has taken him from Paint Branch High School to college stardom at Florida State to NFL riches and, now, to the game's grandest stage. He is a father now, trying to learn from the mistakes his father made. He has turned the unspeakable pain of his mother's death into a career and a life to be proud of, and he said he owes it all to his uncle and to football.

But that doesn't mean it was love at first sight between him and the sport.

"They tried to put me on a football team," Dockett said. "I quit. I was like, 'I don't want to play this. I'm used to stealing cars and fighting and doing all this other stuff. I don't know how to do all this other stuff.' I remember telling the coach, he was like, 'Do you know the three-point stance?' I was like, 'No, but I can tell you how to steal a Buick Regal, though.' "

Dockett was 13 when his mother, Cheryl Hambrick, was killed in Decatur, Ga., by a gunshot to the head. Dockett returned home to discover her body. Her killing remains unsolved.

His father left the family when Darnell was 5 or 6, and he remembers his mother going to the grocery store with $20 trying to feed three children. He acknowledged his mother might have been involved in drugs. But she tried to keep him in school, off the streets and out of trouble. She just hadn't been able to do it.

He and a group of about two dozen other kids his age stole cars, and Dockett said he was arrested "a few times." He also said: "We used to get chased by the police. Sometimes we used to do it on purpose, just to see if they could catch you. I got away the majority of the time. I think only one time I got caught, and that's when somebody told on me."

For five or six years after his mother's death, he said, he spent plenty of time thinking about who did it, whether it was a family member or a neighbor or someone he'd seen regularly. But life moved on. Dockett was sent to Maryland, where his father, Darnell Sr., was dying of pancreatic cancer. His father tried to rekindle their relationship, but Darnell wouldn't allow it. It wasn't until two or three years later, he said, that he forgave his father for leaving the family.

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